Black folks have always faced an existential dilemma in the U.S. The constant drum of violence on our bodies and our dignity leaves an impression on our collective psyche that we too seldom acknowledge.
These unsparing conditions leave many black people with a sense of brokenness—about who they are, the direction of their lives or their faith in the society in which we live. The struggle to hold the precious pieces of our lives can feel like clinging to a broken heirloom, in which we carry a collection of jagged parts to barely keep the treasured whole together. We are living in another precarious political time—this one somewhat more so than the others—and it is critical that we remember to take care of ourselves and one another.
Many of us need radical self-care and deep healing. Certain elements of black culture are slow to admit that we are experiencing so much pain. Perhaps unconsciously, we are afraid to face the enormity of the harm that we continue to endure. Yet when themes of death and dying are so prevalent because so many black people are close to these realities, we must come to terms with our hurt. Only then we can create possibilities of better futures. The premium of our well-being cannot be underestimated. Black lives really matter, and that includes yours.
The subject of healing can feel very abstract. Healing, to me, describes the ways that we restore our well-being. Self-care, in contrast, describes the ways that we maintain our well-being. Healing is much more focused on identifying and addressing root causes. By analogy, it is the difference between a doctor prescribing a medication for pain, which is self-care, and confirming a diagnosis of the illness causing the pain at your office visit and prescribing a treatment, which is a form of healing. Healing, according to traditional medicine, is about understanding and treating the root.
Our relationship to healing can be one of the hardest aspects to grasp. Many people are so estranged from well-being that they don’t even know what it feels like. If we grow up in harsh conditions in which we didn’t have our basic material needs met, often felt unsafe or hypervigilant, lived among chaos and unpredictability, and were under constant stress, it’s possible that we have never felt well.
Naturally, as we adapt to our circumstances, we can grow accustomed to things being hard or to being disassociated from our bodies. We merely learn to be in serious pain. Therefore, we may have no emotional benchmark for better, even as we work toward it. And we may have few ways of knowing that a certain degree of better is best for us.
The issue isn’t about whether or not we feel normal—it’s a recognition that constant anxiety, longtime numbness and deep exhaustion take their toll on us on physical, mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual and psychic levels.
For some, we know that something is wrong, but we don’t feel as if there’s a way for things to change. There’s a hopelessness or cynicism that is cast over us, possibly from previous efforts to gain support for care that went awry. We may feel worse off from trying to ask for help. The prospect of healing may feel riskier than it’s worth. These experiences are valid and make the road toward a better future even more fraught. But the fundamental truth remains that we are not well.
Healing is also a more difficult subject to address because it is complex and context specific. There is no one way to heal, especially if you are in a toxic environment or if your external circumstances are hard to change. Ancient knowledge about trauma, recently confirmed by scientific empirical evidence, points to the fact that we can’t truly heal if we are still actively experiencing harm. Sometimes the best we can do is harm reduction, self-care and aiming toward changing negative conditions.
Depending on your situation, you are best served by acknowledging where you are and employing short-term survival strategies as you find more support or resources to move through where you are. This reality is also important for understanding the intersections of systemic harm in our lives. Different forms of organizing and other political work help us change levels of trauma that we experience so that there is more space for healing. There is no separateness between the lives we live and the systems we live in; therefore, we cannot address healing as if our individual and public lives were distinct.
When we have some distance from harm, we gain opportunities to trace harmful patterns, thoughts or habits back to their origin. Are we hypercritical of ourselves because our parents, who didn’t feel good about themselves, put us down all the time?
Do we choose emotionally unavailable partners because we grew up as caretakers before we were ready?
Do we feel disconnected from our bodies because of abuse that we survived but never processed?
Do we put on hard, impenetrable exteriors because we are deeply insecure about who we are and feel unsafe?
At times we can see these stories in our internal movie reels of our lives as we think back to pivotal moments that shaped us, or everyday parts of our lives that still shake us. Eventually we need something to show us the B side of the reel, to describe and mirror to us the things we can’t see because we are so close.
Learning through reflection can be critical when the source of our imbalance is much older, like generations old. Harsh physical discipline of children, for example, is a cultural norm that developed because enslaved parents wished to protect their children from the brutal consequences of misbehavior meted out by whites. Today this form of punishment can easily become abuse, and is a maladaptive habit that most black folk inherited.
Healing from these traumas, and relearning new patterns of discipline, will not come from an occasional day off work. It takes serious and honest examination and a willingness to uproot what we believe we know. In this example, people with direct experiences of harsh discipline can, through narratives, testimony, art and reporting, serve as our cultural, multigenerational reflections. Their stories must be honored, understood and archived as what some people, including myself, call a “healing technology.”
Part of my role as a folk healer is to provide direction to folks about how to start their intentional healing process. First: the value of honestly naming our harm or being willing to undergo a process that surfaces harm to our consciousness. This is a reiterative process, meaning that throughout our lives, we do this over and over, and often with more than one aspect at a time.
For black folks, much of our pain is so deeply buried that we only know it through our bodies—when they break down or become addicted. Attaching names to our harm, which is still a part of us, means that our repressed pain cannot inadvertently hijack our lives—for instance, when we overwork ourselves and leave little room for intimacy with others, not only because we want to be successful in what we do, but because we are hurt from a series of past disappointing relationships and don’t want to risk heartbreak again. When pain goes unacknowledged, it can be the driver rather than a passenger in a very full vehicle called your life.
Next, a first step toward intentional healing means pairing a practice with your harm. Healing is about complements: finding the things that will rebalance and restore the harm. For example, if you are hypercritical of yourself and struggle with self-esteem, then you could benefit from a healing method that focuses on interrupting negative thoughts and replacing them with affirmations until the criticism is insignificant.
Or, if you are disconnected from your body because of a violation in your past, then having therapeutic bodywork with a trusted healer or learning self-massage may help you redefine your physical boundaries and relationship. Although your healing needs will change over time, embracing a complement principle can help you orient among many options and directions out there.
Third, many of us can do more to help our friends, family, community members and co-workers. To start, we can be much better listeners. Many people don’t confide in others as they need to because when they share truths, they are shamed, receive unsolicited advice or don’t have someone’s full attention. Make invitations to listen to people around you, especially offline, and if they accept, let them share without interruption. Reflect what you heard, bring a genuine curiosity, take some time with them and, if possible, maintain eye contact.
Many of us can also be more supportive of whichever forms of help someone chooses. Whether people try talk therapy, join a support group, start body-awareness meditation or begin a journal, we can offer enthusiastic encouragement and check in on their experiences if they are comfortable sharing.
Sometimes we are reluctant to support people this way because it is confronting for us. It reminds us of our own baggage—especially if we have history with those people and some of our actions have contributed to their harm. Not only can we encourage folks to seek the healing support that they need, but the most important way we can support others’ healing is to do our own, too.
We can’t neglect our own self-care and healing needs, and often, our refusal to take care of ourselves is its own version of deflection. It’s a great idea to find ways for mutual encouragement and gentle accountability within your family or circles so that we all can be in healing together.
Healing could not be a more important theme during this political moment. Black folks should remember that the same conditions that make the world feel so relentless are the very sources for resilience, richness and vitality in our cultural, communal and spiritual lives. Our well-being can’t only be defined through improving our economic and political systems—we must address the roots of our traumas on all levels so that we can meaningfully build alternative systems and ways of life for our futures.
There are people and communities that are already living at the intersections of what is called healing justice. We have beautiful emergent models in the disability-justice movement, especially among transgender organizers of color with disabilities, like Reina Gossett, whose lives and work remind all black people of the power of knowing ourselves and affirming our beauty, and how to navigate the world even when the world may not be structured for us to exist.
Every black person deserves to feel whole, liberated and loved. If there was ever a time for hands-on healing, it’s now.
Richael Faithful (they/them/theirs) is a Washington, D.C.-based multidisciplinary folk healer and spiritual activist from the black diasporic healing tradition of the U.S. called conjure.